What I’ve Learned Working with A Bipolar Founder.
Why a mind that thinks differently can be a real advantage in entrepreneurship
I have been working with a young founder from Wellington for the past six months to guide how he scales his business into the US and UK. He’s twenty years old, is dyslexic and bipolar. On paper, that would sound like a challenge, but the experience has reinforced my view that those with mental disorders often make for highly successful entrepreneurs. I want to share my experience of working with Matt to help demystify the realities of the disorder and to shed some light on what it means to be bipolar, especially for young startup founders.
Matt Strawbridge is the founder and CEO of Peoply, an EdTech startup based in Wellington, NZ. The company is changing the education game for kids that ‘think differently’ by providing an online learning and well-being platform for children that don’t resonate with traditional education systems. They offer remote classes for these kids to help empower them socially, emotionally and academically, while developing the skills necessary for a bright future.
My work with Matt has mainly been around working out how to bring Peoply to the United States and the UK, and to establish the systems needed to grow a global company from NZ. At the time of publication, Peoply is just on twelve months old, has a solid NZ customer base, has launched its first pilot into the UK market and is a week out from launching its first pilot into the US. In other words, Peoply is growing well. It is doing so because it is well led by a young man who has a powerful mission and the capabilities for achieving success. He just so happens to be both “incredibly dyslexic” (his words) and bipolar.
At this point, it’s essential to understand that I am not an expert in bipolar disorder, its symptoms, or how others may experience it. I am only looking to share my experience of working with someone that has bipolar disorder to help demystify the realities of the disorder’s symptoms and to provide a positive example of someone that is succeeding with the disorder.
My experience working with Matt has been both profound and rewarding. It has also been incredibly eye-opening to witness someone thriving in the startup world by embracing bipolar disorder and leveraging it for success.
Matt often states that to him, the term bipolar is more a descriptor for part of his personality, not a clinical disorder to describe him as a person. As he describes it, he exists between three states of mind. A positive ‘mania’, a negative ‘depression’ and somewhere ‘normal’ in between the two. He is continuously cycling between mania and depression, but when he is in either state, he has trouble identifying with the other. i.e. when he feels up, he can’t remember ever being down, and when he’s down, he can’t remember being up. He often admits to having trouble identifying with his ‘normal’ state, (“what does that mean anyway?”, he always asks), which is one of the more challenging factors of the disorder, as Matt describes it.
After working almost daily with Matt for the last six months, the term bipolar doesn’t reflect the reality of how his symptoms actually manifest. The term ‘bi-polar’ reinforces an idea that sufferers experience distinct binary mental states, where they have ‘two poles’ to their mind. They ‘exist’ in an either/or manner, suddenly switching between the two states of mania or depression. This isn’t really the case. There’s nothing distinct or binary about Matt’s symptoms, and he often admits that it is far more complicated than an either/or.
Most times, it isn’t apparent that Matt is/has experienced an episode unless he overtly tells me about it. That’s not to say his symptoms aren’t sometimes severe; it’s just that they don’t often manifest in an obvious way to me as an external observer. This is important to understand as manic and depressive states don’t typically manifest in extreme external ways. They are often far more subtle. A manic episode doesn’t compel Matt to randomly jump on the couch with joy and a depressive episode doesn’t automatically leave him a bed-bound zombie. The symptoms are emotional and, just like any other emotion, are internal and unique to the individual. When Matt has had severe symptoms, he may seem more excited, or flatter, but he’s always been, Matt. It’s been remarkable to hear Matt retrospectively recount how he was feeling at specific points in time as it often hasn’t been obvious.
The most striking realisation of all, however, is that, while there are real and painful challenges associated with being bipolar for Matt, there are also real advantages for him as an entrepreneur. When he experiences his mania, he can think in an incredibly creative and ‘visionary’ way. We’ve drawn our best insights from his manic state, and this has been a core driver for Peoply’s early strategic wins. He continually describes how his creativity is one of the many positive consequences of his bipolar mind. I would agree.
He also has an incredibly astute EQ and empathy for people, which makes him an inspiring leader and team builder. His mind is attuned to the nuance of emotion and non-verbal communication, which allows him to read people and engage them in meaningful ways. He empowers people to engage with him and what he’s trying to achieve, and this leads to incredible buy-in for his mission.
What is most impressive to me is that he embraces the fact that his mind works differently. That isn’t to say that it’s easy for Matt, especially when his symptoms are server, but he understands that he sees the world differently and is continuously working out ways to leverage his outlier of a mind for entrepreneurial success.
In conclusion, the most valuable insight I’ve had from working with Matt is that, while it may sometimes be very unpleasant for those with bipolar, the disorder should be viewed as part of the person’s overall personality, not as a labelled mental disorder. That is certainly how Matt sees it and I agree, as this framing offers a much better articulation of the reality of the condition. It has been nothing but a wholly positive experience to work with Matt and I have tried to be as practical and honest in describing my experience of working with him as I can.
Again, my intention is to provide an insight into the realities of bipolar disorder and to give an example of how and why a unique mind like Matt’s thrives as a young entrepreneur. Please feel free to share this around if you think it will help add to the conversation of improving our collective understanding and acceptance of, not only bipolar disorder but all mental health related topics.
About the Author
Hi there, My name is Aidan Kenealy and I’m a professional founder coaching and adviser for founders of high growth startups. I help founders from all around the world achieve success on their own terms by helping them get the best out of themselves and their business. In essences, I’ve made it my business to help startup founders make their business the best they can make them.